Shale gas drillers want to ship their chemical-laden wastewater by river barge
but they need federal officials to decide whether to allow it.
The Coast Guard commander overseeing a risk-assessment of the idea says a decision should come soon.
"I'm trying to pressure to get this quickly resolved -- so that everyone can do this or not (do it) -- just so we have some finality to it," Cmdr. Michael Roldan said in a phone interview from Washington headquarters, adding that he doesn't know how long the review will take.
Several companies are interested in bulk barge shipments of hydraulic fracturing and drilling wastewater to out-of-state disposal sites, several business and government officials said. The Coast Guard, which regulates the nation's waterways, has final approval and must finish assessing the risk posed by carcinogens, pollutants and radioactive particles in the waste.
Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate Pittsburgh-area rivers isn't worth the risk. A barge accident would be a "massive catastrophe," said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization.
Diesel, gasoline, benzene and chlorine, among many other chemicals, are already shipped in bulk on the nation's rivers, said Peter Stephaich, chairman of Campbell Transportation in Houston, Washington County. Shale drilling wastewater is shipped by truck and rail, which could expedite its approval for river shipping, Roldan said.
"I know this is sort of an emotional, sensitive issue, but... this water is already moving, it's just a matter of how they're going to move," Stephaich said.
Two or three companies contacted Campbell about shipping well wastewater by barge and it is ready to do the work with an OK from the Coast Guard, he added.
Coast Guard chemical engineers completed their assessment, in the works for years, said Roldan, chief of the Coast Guard's hazardous materials division. Now they're working with superiors at the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security and officials from other federal departments to review that assessment. President Obama's special panel of shale gas advisers is likely to look at it, too, Roldan said.
"I think the engineering provides its own appropriate answers," he added when asked why he'd like to see a quick resolution. "For the most part, it's a very cold calculation, very straightforward engineering calculations. What this cargo brings in is more sensitivity about natural gas extraction activity. That's way beyond my realm of influence or even interest."
Roldan declined to say what the initial calculations showed. Several of the business and government officials on the Port of Pittsburgh Commission board said they expect the Coast Guard to approve the shipments, maybe within a few months. A few expressed frustration with the length of the review, but it is standard to involve several federal departments, Roldan and commission Executive Director James McCarville said.
There's been some confusion at ports in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Ohio about the issue.
John Jack, vice president of business development and operations for GreenHunter Water, a company that handles wastewater for major oil and gas companies, said "nobody told us that we couldn't" move shale wastewater by barge.
GreenHunter was planning to start using barges before the end of the year because they believed the process was allowed, Jack said.
Some commission members said it was important for government officials to avoid rushing any decision.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, asked McCarville to add the issue to the commission's next board meeting, including consideration of a public hearing.
"I found it incredulous that private industry had already secured property and may have actually started this activity without any governmental approval or notification," Ferlo said in a memo. "I do not support the barging of so-called frack water..."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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